How to Expect the Unexpected While Abroad
What you need to know:
- Don't let unexpected experiences ruin your study abroad experience
- Studying abroad will challenge you mentally. This is a good thing!
- Unexpected events can actually lead to better experiences
When I went abroad in the Spring of 2011 to Rome, Italy I left with little to no expectations. I had traveled quite a bit before my semester abroad, and I quickly learned that having expectations can actually lead you down the wrong path. Things just rarely pan out the way you want them to while traveling abroad. That's not to say that it's necessarily a bad thing when your journey doesn't go to plan, though. Sometimes misfortunes lead you to unexpected places, people and adventures you never would have had otherwise.
My goal while studying abroad for four months in the Eternal City was to not only get to know Rome like the back of my hand, but to travel throughout the rest of Europe, as well. Each place brought on new challenges that I met head on, which helped me grow and discover more about myself than I ever knew was possible. So many unexpected things happened and that's what I loved about my experience abroad.
Sure, studying abroad can be nerve-wracking and even intimidating at times. Whether because of culture shock, the language barrier, or a public transportation system you simply can't seem to understand, life abroad can be frustrating. But despite all the things that make studying abroad feel overwhelming, I promise you--it's an experience of a lifetime that you will not regret, and one that you're certain to remember.
Never let a bad situation get the best of you and ruin the rest of your time studying abroad.
Lesson #1 - Don't Panic
This is lesson number one for a reason. Even when it seems like the appropriate response, don't panic, because that's when things get worse. Be proactive in your decisions and responses to bad situations. Never let a bad situation get the best of you and ruin the rest of your time abroad. When things go wrong, it may seem like the end of the world at the time, especially because you're far from home and everything familiar, but hold your head high, because things will get better. In fact, instead of focusing on what went wrong, try focusing on the things that went better than expected!
Lesson #2 - Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone
When you study abroad, there's always a chance you'll travel to a country where you don't understand the language. Yes, the language barrier is scary, but no, it doesn't have to be a limiting factor in where you go. Although I took a semester of Italian before heading to Rome, I still only knew the most basic Italian phrases when I arrived. I didn't let this stop me. Instead, I jumped right into a language exchange program on Thursday nights, I made every effort to order food in Italian, and I continued with my language education in a class. And you know what? It paid off! One day while taking the bus to campus, an elderly man sat next to me and began chatting--and I was able to hold a (very limited) conversation with him! It was completely unexpected, and one of the most rewarding memories from my time in Rome.
Lesson #3 - Challenge Yourself
I know that when I was abroad I challenged myself more than I ever had before. Instead of letting my fears run my decision-making, I put them on hold and gained some pretty sweet experiences from doing so. I never imagined myself exploring catacombs in Rome, rafting down a river and cliff diving in Croatia, eating Svickova and drinking Grog in Prague, spelunking with a Finnish guy in Budapest, or taking a Red Light District tour in Amsterdam. And yet, I did all of these things. I didn't plan them, but when the opportunities arose, I took them, and I didn't regret a single moment.
I had no idea that solo travel could be so rewarding, and now that I know, the next time I decide to travel on my own I won't be so intimidated!
Lesson #4 - Learn to Defeat Homesickness
Some of us are luckier than others--not everyone gets homesick in the same way. But learn what works best for you when you're homesick, because it strikes unexpectedly at what seems like the most inopportune moments. For me, I know that keeping busy helped me to push past the bouts of homesickness. For my roommate, I know that running helped her ease her mind. For others, I know that eating a familiar food from home (like peanut butter!) or Skyping a family member helped. Whatever it was, each of us learned to deal with it in different ways. No one likes being homesick, but it's almost a fact of life while studying abroad for a semester, and instead of letting it get the best of you it's better to beat it by remembering you're having the adventure of a lifetime!
Lesson #5 - Don't Be Afraid to Go It Alone
Probably the best trip I took while studying abroad in Rome was to Budapest, and the reason it was my favorite trip was because I did it alone. I had originally planned to meet two friends there, one who was studying in Paris and the other who was studying in Milan, only to have them both cancel on me. Instead of loosing the money I had already spent on my plane ticket and hostel, I opted to go to Budapest anyway. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I made all semester. I got to explore the city at my own pace, eat when I was hungry, do the things I wanted to do, and meet people I never would have met if I weren't traveling alone. I had no idea that solo travel could be so rewarding, and now that I know, the next time I decide to travel on my own I won't be so intimidated!
The Trevi Fountain in Rome, Italy
Lesson #6 - Take Public Transportation
Maybe it's not the most convenient way to travel, but I found the public transportation in Europe to be cheaper than taxis or renting a car and it still gets you where you need to go efficiently. You also get to see and meet some of the coolest people when traveling by train or bus. While I was on a train going to the Tuscan region of Italy with two friends, we sat across from two Canadians who had been backpacking through Europe for three months. We exchanged stories, tips and favorite places, and just had a great conversation. On a tram in Rome the first weekend I was there, my roommate and I got lost and took the tram too many stops past our apartment. One man, who luckily spoke English, overheard us and helped us get back to our stop. On a mini-bus in Rome I met a British couple who needed help finding the Spanish Steps. You never know who you'll meet on a tram, train, or bus!
While studying abroad maybe full of unexpected diversions, it doesn't mean they have to be unwanted diversions. Sometimes the unexpected plan is more rewarding than the original plan. Don't worry about always sticking to the plan. Worry more about having the best time possible and maximizing your time abroad. That way, when a friend cancels on you at the last second, or you have to take a bus instead of a taxi, or eat something you can't even pronounce, or can't understand the language well, you can still have a good time--because you expected the unexpected to happen.
And that is the only expectation you should have!